A Polarizing Canadian ‘Messiah’ Shows How Pandemic Is Shaking Up Culture

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Canadian luminaries, including the writer Margaret Atwood, have praised “Messiah/Complex,” which grapples with heady themes such as Islamophobia, climate change and colonization. But after my story about the production was published in The Times, the work also came under criticism.

Writing in The National Review, the American conservative magazine, Kevin D. Williamson likened the production to hijacking “medieval Catholic imagery for an episode of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’” The production, he wrote, was the “silly repurposing of Messiah in the service of cheap and illiterate identity politics.” Others called it sacrilegious.

Matthew Loden, chief executive of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, told me that taking on a paradigm-busting “Messiah” had been particularly daring at a time when people, unhinged by a pandemic, were “looking, misty-eyed, to the past.” Nevertheless, he said, the pandemic, while forcing his financially strained orchestra to cancel its 2020-21 season, was also an opportunity to experiment with new artistic forms and to attract a larger and captive global audience, stuck at home.

With concert halls shuttered, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has, for example, been trying new ways to connect with audiences, including musicians giving individual live 30-minute video-call performances of Beethoven, folk music or popular songs like “Fly Me to the Moon” to isolated senior citizens at home or in nursing homes.

“Messiah/Complex” opens with Spencer Britten, a gay biracial Chinese tenor, who is shown wearing six-inch-high stilettos. He told me he had fashioned his segment as an affirmation of gay pride as well as an exhortation to the world, including his tut-tutting conservative Chinese aunties, to accept him for who he is.

“It was my biggest pop diva fantasy being filmed,” he told me, expressing the hope that Handel, who was adept at understanding the social mores of his era, would have appreciated a revamping of “The Messiah” for modern times.

“Messiah/Complex” also seeks to empower Indigenous voices, among them singers in Yukon, the Northwestern Territories, Labrador and Alberta.

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